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Pope Benedict XVI writes, “Athanasius was undoubtedly one of the most important and revered early Church Fathers. But this great Saint was above all the impassioned theologian of the Incarnation of the Logos, the Word of God who – as the Prologue of the fourth Gospel says – “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1: 14).”[1]

St. Athanasius was born around 300 A.D, his exact date of birth is debated among scholars,  and died on May 2, 373 A.D. Fr. Christopher Rengers writes in his book, The 35 Doctors of the Church, “nothing is known of his family. From the thoroughness of his education, it is presumed that he came from well-to-do parents who could afford a good education. But he could have received much of this through the influence of Alexander (Patriarch of Alexandria)”[2] Pope Benedict believes that this education occurred before any contact with Bishop Alexander of Alexandria.[3] Prior to the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., in 318 A.D, Athanasius wrote his most famous work called On the Incarnation in which Marcellino D’Ambrosio articulates as “one of the great theological classics of all time.”[4] However, it must be expressed that there is some debate when the classic text was written; D’ambrosio dates it to an earlier period due to addressing the topics brought forth by Arius and the Arian heresy, but not ever naming Arius distinctly.[5]

The issues brought forth by St. Athanasius and settled during the Council of Nicaea would appear to us modern Catholics as non-controversial, but Catholics of the modern age have to realize that much of our creedal traditions were forged during these pivotal years. Fr. Rengers explains, “A GREAT controversy that involved emperors, popes and bishops, that stirred up intrigue and bloodshed, that shook Christianity to its depths, centered on one simple, sure answer in the Catechism. The answer goes very simply: ‘The chief teaching of the Catholic Church about Jesus Christ is that He is God made man.”[6] Fr. Renger goes on, “Because of his championship of this fundamental truth he is called ‘The Father of Orthodoxy’…St. Athanasius defended the divine Sonship at the cost of immense personal discomfort, suffering and danger. His whole live was shaped around his defense of the divinity of Christ.”[7]

St. Athanasius’ orthodoxy exhibited in his work On the Incarnation and others that defended the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ caused him a lot of turmoil in his life. D’Ambrosio reminds us that “during the forty-five years he was bishop, he was banished five times for a total of seventeen years in exile. By the time he died in A.D. 373, he had outlasted most of his enemies. He fought tirelessly, sometimes almost singlehandedly, for the truth of the Catholic faith taught at Nicaea.”[8] During one of his many exiles, St. Athanasius “was pursued up the Nile, When the imperial officers were gaining on him, he ordered his boat turned around. At the time it was still hidden from the pursuers by a bend in the river. When the two boats crossed paths, the Roman officers, not personally knowing Athanasius shouted out, asking if anyone had seen Athanasius. St. Athanasius himself answered them: “He is not very far off.” It’s important to ponder this story, for it reveals that in our future struggles, we must use our intelligence to not only defend ourselves from our enemies but also to defend the faith.

Arius was a priest in Alexandria who “threatened authentic faith in Christ, declaring the Logos was not a true God but a created God, a creature “halfway” between God and man who hence remained for ever inaccessible to us.”[9] Jimmy Akin explains Arianism very well in his book, The Fathers Know Best, writing that the heresy was “Founded by Arius, a priest of Alexandria, Egypt, in the early 300s. Arius held that originally the Son of God did not exist. There was a time in which there was a single divine Person who became the Father when he created the Son out of nothing. The Son was the first of all created beings and thus separate from the Father in being. The heresy was condemned at the first ecumenical council—Nicaea I in 325—but the controversy intensified and lasted much longer.[10]

What would be the result if Arius’ assertion were true?

D’Ambrosio explains “If Christ is simply a demigod, an intermediary who is something less than God, he is not really Emmanuel, God with us, Rather, he is an emissary sent by God…the emissary conveys the orders of the Sovereign but does not himself know the Sovereign intimately, he cannot reveal God to us as he really is. We are condemned to obey God but to never really know him.”[11]

The idea of the Incarnation and Divinity of Jesus is important to Christianity that D”Ambrosio explains it as “the linchpin of our salvation. If Christ were only a creature, the Gospel would truly be such a good news after all.”[12] In many ways, it has always been sin that is easily visible in the world. The good news of the Gospels gives us hope that the hole that has been caused by our sin against God will be healed by God with our cooperation, as St. Athanasius explains so beautifully in his work On the Incarnation.

I am reminded of the consequence of Christ being a creation of God and also of an essay written by G.K. Chesterton on Original Sin.

Chesterton writes:

ONCE upon a time when Mr. H. G. Wells was setting forth on his varied and splendid voyage from Utopia to Utopia, he announced as a sort of watchword or war-cry that the new world would have nothing to do with the idea of Original Sin. He did not specially speak, and, indeed, there was no reason for him to speak, about his other beliefs or unbeliefs. He had not then compared the Trinity to a dance; but neither had he called adoring multitudes to the shrine of the Invisible King. But, standing at the end of the great scientific nineteenth century, he thought it time to announce that the one doctrine he did not believe in was Original Sin. Standing at the beginning of the still more scientific twentieth century, Mr. Aldous Huxley calmly announces that the one doctrine he does believe in is Original Sin. He may be a sceptic or a heretic about many things, but on that point he is quite orthodox. He may not hold many theological dogmas, but about this dogma he is quite dogmatic. There is one fragment of the ancient creed which he not only clings to, but declares to be necessary to all clear minds of the new generation. And that is the very fragment which Mr. Wells threw away thirty years ago, as something that would never be needed any more. The stone that the builder of Utopia rejected . . .”[13]

 It is St. Athanasius work, On the Incarnation, where he lays down both the importance of the divinity of Christ and his necessary sacrifice to make the world anew as a result of humanities sin against God.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers: From Clement of Rome to Augustine (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2008),58.

[2] Christopher Rengers and Matthew E. Bunson, The 35 Doctors of the Church (Tan Books: Charlotte, 2014), 2.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, 59.

[4] Marcellino D’Ambrosio, When The Church was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers (Servant Books: San Francisco, 2014),162.

[5] Ibid, 163.

[6] Renger and Bunson, 1.

[7] Ibid.

[8] D’Ambrosio, 177.

[9] Pope Benedict XVI, 59.

[10] Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2010), 85.

[11] D’Ambrosio, 165.

[12] Ibid, 164.

[13] http://www.gkc.org.uk/gkc/books/GKC_Come_to_Think.html#c28

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